Hurricane Gustav Highlights the Need for Storm Safety Landscaping

Baton Rouge, LA (September 5, 2008)- Hurricane Gustav came ashore on Monday morning, September 1, west of New Orleans as a Category 2 storm with winds of 110 MPH. It came in over the recreational fishing village of Cocodrie, Louisiana south of Houma and Thibodeaux. One report in Ascension Parish noted 134 mph winds with 100+ MPH sustained winds, along with massive failure of many of the Red Oak species and exposed trees that would include edge trees and specimen yard trees. Gustav was, by every account, a high intensity storm that cut a swath between Baton Rouge and Lafayette in Lousiana, and also affected Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi.


The Alliance for Community Trees encourages a region-wide dialogue about how city agencies and residents can work together to implement stronger storm safety protocols that include smart landscaping, storm-appropriate green infrastructure, and planting the right tree in the right place.
To date, there is still little knowledge of tree planting for hurricane resistance and damage prevention in the Gulf Coast region. Citizens need more education about trees that are likely to survive hurricanes.
Many tree ordinances, including in Baton Rouge, do not address hurricanes and trees. So many lessons learned by arborists, urban foresters, landscape architects, and horticulturists about selecting and planting hurricane-suited species do not get passed on to city leaders and the general public.
More directly, not getting these issues right is costing taxpayers a heavy dollar.
Economic Impact of Urban Forestry Cleanup
In the immediate aftermath of the storm the East Baton Rouge City Parish Government contracted with a Minnesota company to haul storm debris. Ceres Environmental will be paid $7.50 per cubic yard to haul storm waste to public landfills. The current estimate is that Ceres will pick up one million cubic feet of debris or about four times what as generated by Hurricane Katrina in 2008. Much of the debris to be hauled off city streets will be tree debris. Ceres estimates it will take one month to clean the city.
Photograph courtesy of Tika Laudun.
Baton Rouge Damage Assessment
Baton Rouge recorded gusts- but not sustained winds- of 96 MPH at the airport, but it was enough to fell and uproot some truly beautiful and majestic trees in many of the city’s older neighborhoods. The city also suffered considerable and widespread damage to property due to flooding near rivers and tributaries. By many accounts in comparison to Hurricanes Andrew, Lily, Katrina, and Rita, Hurricane Gustav is the worst storm to have hit Baton Rouge in the past century. There are few neighborhoods without heavy damage including many thousands of fallen trees and hundreds of damaged homes.
According to LSU Landscape Professor Buck Abbey, many newly planted large landscape specimen trees 6″ caliper or more that were planted within the last two years were overturned. Most landscape grade crape myrtle and large palms planted within the last five years were overturned or severely leaning. Many showed no staking methods applied.
Even before the recent hurricanes, the area’s urban forest had taken a hit. One study by the East Baton Rouge Tree & Landscape Commission in the early 1990s depicted the canopy at 55% density. A more recent estimate (1998) by the EPA showed the urban forest canopy at 40% and declining.
Damage from Gustav might best be characterized as moderate destruction to the urban forest canopy. Major limb breakage largely comprised the most noticed symptom of destruction followed by split leaders, snap off crowns, and uprooted overthrows. Leaning trees are evident across the community and hangers are common on most streets surveyed. Uprooting made the largest impact to the urban forest canopy and neighborhoods. Major limb breakage will require many trees to be treated by arborists to make the visually acceptable.
Photograph courtesy of Tika Laudun.
Species showing the most damage include: water oak, sycamore, red oak, American sweetgum, pecan, willow and red cedar. Within urban development Bradford pear, crape myrtle, sweetgum, maple, lacebark elm and palms showed damage. Live oak, southern magnolia and cypress survived well.
As a rule, the large canopy trees were the ones that were the most damaged. Canopy trees in Baton Rouge are very tall and some species very broad. Quick growing trees were damaged the most and live oaks and cypress damaged the least.
Damage was noted across town pretty consistently however some neighborhoods suffered more tree damage and loss than others. The Hundred Oaks section and the Garden District section suffered much more damage than South Baton Rouge. Oakhills and Kennilworth both lost many large mature trees that overturned. At one house in Oakhills in South Baton Rouge a very large and old Southern Red Oak had overturned. The resident mourning the loss of the tree, spray-painted the trunk in white paint the message “Oakless Hills”.
All of the highly treed neighborhood between Highland Road and Perkins suffered much structural tree damage. Damage in North Baton Rouge and on the east side of town was not assessed as part of this study.
Newer subdivision faired better. So as a general rule, older areas of town with a mature canopy suffered the most damage. An LSU student who lives in a hard hit neighborhood commented that six trees overturned on her block alone located in the Garden District.
Lower Jefferson Parish Damage Assessment
Jean Lafitte and lower Jefferson Parish, including Grand Isle, took quite a bit of storm surge, with waters topping the levees in parts of Plaquemines Parish. A large number of cypress trees snapped, and a similar number of oaks were felled/uprooted. The latter is most directly attributed to rains that the area received in the weeks and months prior to Gustav’s landfall, leaving the ground too soggy to hold up toppling trees. Jefferson Parish continues to await restoration of electric power so that its wastewater and water treatment plants can begin operating and processing waste. Returning residents have been asked to limit their use of water and facilities so as to avoid sewer overflows and backups into their homes and businesses.
Photograph courtesy of Tika Laudun.
U.S. Geological Survey Assessment
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette examined coastal forests. They report that some areas had little damage but other areas had considerable impacts due to wind and salt water intrusion. They report considerable storm impact to Grand Isle’s live oak forest as a result of salt water. In the Atchafalya basin, located between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, scientists report that in some areas a twenty to fifty percent tree canopy loss was evident. The most damaged trees were black willow.
Utilities Damage Assessment
More Louisiana residents are affected with power outages than after Hurricane Katrina, which was more powerful but only affected the southeastern region of Louisiana. Many communities will likely wait two to four weeks for restoration of electric power. We hope the current situation supports the need for utility companies to improve their emergency/disaster assessment and response methodologies and protocols, including recommendations for underground powerlines.
The utility company, Cleco, reported that Gustav left 90 percent of their entire service territory without power (246,092 customers), which is the largest impact in their 70 years history. The damage included: 32 transmission lines, 14 transmission substations, and 1,000 broken distribution poles. In comparison for Cleco, Hurricane Lili caused 170,880 outages, Hurricane Katrina caused 80,800 in St. Tammany, and Hurricane Rita caused 136,584 outages. Similar to Hurricane Rita, this damage is widespread and through so much rural land, resulting in many miles to patrol to find the problems and then difficulty even getting to the problems once they have been identified.
Thanks to the following individuals for local assessments:
Michael Knobloch, Louisiana Urban Forest Council
Buck Abbey, LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture
Steve Shurtz, East Baton Rouge Parish Landscape & Forestry
Tommy Darensbourg, Louisiana Municipal Association
Tika Laudin, Louisiana Public Broadcasting
Liz Barnes, Louisiana Public Broadcasting
Cindy Bouchie, Cleco
Related Resources:
Homage to urban forestry airs at appropriate time
Louisiana Urban Forest Council
Louisiana Municipal Association
Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry
East Baton Rouge Parish Tree Commission- Office of Landscape & Forestry
Louisiana Public Broadcasting- Return to the Forest Where We Live
Louisiana Public Broadcasting- Storm Safety Protocols
GCR Consulting Analysis of Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina
Hurricane Gustav Radar Loop
Hurricane Katrina Radar Loop
Hurricane Rita Radar Loop